Interview: Dennis McKenna


Photo: Beth Darbyshire

Dr. Dennis McKenna has conducted research in ethnopharmacology for over 30 years. He currently teaches in the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.

Avi Solomon: Tell us a bit about yourself

Dennis McKenna: I'm 60 years old, born in Paonia Colorado, a small town in Western Colorado in 1950. I experienced my teenage years in the turbulent 60's, but had a fairly normal life in my early years. I shared many interests with my brother Terence, and while growing up we were both 'nerds' (though the word hadn't been invented yet), meaning that we were more interested in science and science fiction than athletics or other 'normal' teenage interests. We were butterfly and amateur rock collectors; amateur rocketeers, and that kind of thing. My dad encouraged and supported this kind of thing. So that was an early influence; curiosity about the world which our parents encouraged. Then the 60's came along and we were well-primed for it. Largely due to our early exposure to science fiction and my father's occasional purchases of Fate magazine, we were open to the idea of paranormal experiences, UFOs, the occult, other dimensions, altered states, aliens, and all of that. So when psychedelics came along, naturally we were fascinated by them, though we knew little about them at the time. And in the early to mid-60's they didn't have the social stigma attached to them that they acquired later.

So to us the idea that psychedelics could actually give access to real experiences of other dimensions, alien entities, etc. which we had only read about up to that point, meant we were naturally drawn to them. And as we learned more about them, during the ferment of the late 60's, they seemed to Terence and me to be far more interesting than anything else going on at the time; the political ferment of the Vietnam war and the protest movement; the hippy, countercultural 'revolution' which we were involved in but also aloof from in some respects. The hippies were largely anti-intellectual, and we thought of ourselves as intellectuals. Hippies were involved in psychedelics but really didn't have any kind of intellectual framework for them; they were 'recreational' and fun. We took them more seriously than most people, or so we liked to think. Then along came DMT…DMT was rarely encountered in the late 60's but Terence had access to it as a result of his contacts in Berkeley, where he was living at the time. You could occasionally find badly synthesized DMT in those circles at the time. And to us, DMT seemed like a whole different order of experience; much more profound than LSD, mescaline, any of the others around at the time. Psilocybin was unheard of, never encountered, and any mushrooms one ran into in those days were LSD sprayed onto store-bought, edible mushrooms. So when we discovered DMT we were blown away. It was not only the most interesting drug we'd ever encountered, it was the most interesting thing we'd ever encountered. (interesting in the sense of fascinating, peculiar, mysterious, frightening, astonishing…). Nearly 50 years later, I'd have to say it still is! One of the top two or three anyway.

So it was really DMT that got us onto this path. To us, nothing else was so interesting as DMT and the cosmic dimensions that it seemed to rip open to exploration. For a couple of dyed-in-the-wool science fiction nuts, DMT seemed like the ultimate mystery! So it was our fascination with DMT that led us into the study of Jungian psychology, shamanism, ethnobotany, anthropology, magic, alchemy, mysticism, and all of those related topics. Each in our own way, we determined that nothing else mattered so much as the single-minded pursuit of this mystery. And in many respects it was this early interest and curiosity about DMT and other tryptamines that have guided many of the personal and professional choices I have made since that time. The decision to study ethnobotany, plant chemistry and pharmacology; the fascination with South America and travels there over many years; and the contributions I have made to science, whether directly related to psychedelics or not, have largely been the result of that early interest and passion.

Avi: Give us a synopsis of you and your brother's adventures in La Chorrera

Dennis: The short answer is that we had scoured the ethnobotanical literature and had learned of an orally-active form of DMT that the Witoto Indians of South America prepared from the sap of Virola species (a genus of trees in the nutmeg family). We were frustrated by the fact that the DMT experience, when smoking synthetic DMT, was overwhelming, quite intense, but very short (about 10-15 minutes). It was hard to spend enough time in that 'place' to really get a handle on what was going on. So when we stumbled across a paper by Schultes about this orally active form of DMT, we thought that maybe, in that form, the experience would last longer and we could understand it better. No one knew about ayahuasca and the fact that it is an orally activated form of DMT at that time; this was 1970, before the chemistry and pharmacology of ayahuasca had been thoroughly understood.

So we decided to travel to La Chorrera, Colombia, in search of the mysterious Witoto hallucinogen, known as 'ookoohey', thinking that this was the Holy Grail we were seeking. But when we actually got to La Chorrera, in February of 1971, actually getting our hands on oo-koo-hey proved to be problematic, due to cultural restrictions among other things. Years later when we actually did find ookoohey it proved to be fairly disappointing. But at LC we decided to settle in for a while and bide our time, and hope that an opportunity to encounter ookoohey would present itself. Meantime, the pastures around the little mission village of La Chorrera had a large herd of Sabu cattle grazing there; and the dung of these cows happens to be the preferred substrate for a particularly potent form of psilocybin mushrooms, Psilocybe cubensis. So there were big, beautiful clusters of Psilocybe cubensis growing out of every cow pie in the pasture! So at first we didn't take them seriously. We knew what they were, from our literature searches, but we thought they were just fun; we didn't realize that it was the mushrooms, not ookoohey, that are the perfect orally active form of DMT (for all practical purposes; DMT and psilocybin/psilocin are close chemical cousins). And so we just started taking them recreationally, as much as a way to pass the time while we waited for the 'real' mystery to emerge. It didn't take long for the 'real mystery' to manifest itself, after a few high-dose mushroom sessions. In those sessions it quickly became clear that the mushrooms were the source of the real gnosis, and our quest for ookoohey became all but forgotten, as the mushrooms began to download a lot of what seemed like gnosis to us. In particular some extremely peculiar, 'funny ideas' as my brother put it, about biophysics, insect metamorphosis, the nature of time, and suggestions about an 'experiment' we could perform that would not only change us, but might be the key to opening up another dimension. So we performed this 'experiment', really more of a ritual than an experiment (in the scientific sense), and it had spectacular results; but not the result we had predicted. Not the collapse of the space-time continuum, but a profound and prolonged psychological transformation, which must have looked like psychosis to the casual observer, but to us (Terence & me) made perfect sense in the context of what was happening to us. Years later when I think about what happened it seems to me that it fits the model of shamanic initiation more than it does a prolonged simultaneous psychosis. All the themes were there; the notion of a cosmic journey, of transformation into something not human or more than human; and the acquisition of shamanic powers, such as telepathy, the ability to heal, knowledge of plants, access to vast archives of archetypal information.

So all of these themes have been explored to some extent in my brother's book, True Hallucinations. Much of the rest of both of our lives since that event have been, in one way or another, an effort to come to terms with what happened, and make sense of it. It certainly has been a major influence on the directions our lives took following that event; and 40 years later, I still wouldn't say that we have figured it out.

Avi: What kind of auditory hallucinations did you experience?

Dennis: Well, one does have auditory hallucinations sometimes on DMT; often a sense of ripping or crackling cellophane. I'm not sure what that is. In our experience at La Chorrera and in subsequent mushroom experiences that I have had, one doesn't get so much an audial 'hallucination' as the sense that one is being instructed by a teacher entity of some kind. This theme was very strong at La Chorrera, we believed we were getting instructions on how to design and execute the 'experiment' from an alien, insectile (mantis-like) entity; we even called it 'the Teach'; and we wanted to 'meet the Teach', and we did. But it was in the form of gestalts of understanding that this information was imparted, not in the form of an audial hallucination per se. This kind of 'encounter' seems to be characteristic of tryptamine-based psychedelics. You commonly get this with mushrooms and DMT, the sense of an encounter or dialog with an intelligence that is different than the self.

Avi: Can intense meditation practices (of any spiritual tradition) induce the same kind of visions?

Dennis: Very possibly they can. I don't know if they can induce exactly the kinds of visions and and the sense of 'downloading the gnosis' that we experienced at La Chorrera. But I think the literature of mysticism shows that you can achieve very similar altered states through shamanic practices, intense drumming, breathing exercises, and that sort of thing. But in either case, you're talking about very deliberately altering one's neurochemistry, whether through shamanic practices that changes one's brain state, or through pharmacological means. I don't hold with people who say that one is more 'valid' than the other, or that psychedelic states are somehow not 'genuine' compared to similar states reached 'naturally'. I think this is just a bias. Experience itself – whether we are stoned or not – is a brain state; a state of consciousness. What we like to call 'consensus reality' or normal consciousness is really just a brain state, a hallucination if you like. Our brains take in raw data from the environment through our senses, it combines it with other information such as memories, acquired knowledge, and so on, and synthesizes it into a movie or narrative that seems to make sense to us (most of the time). And this is the state that we experience as ordinary reality, the day-to-day hallucination or movie that we inhabit that we call experience, our experience of being!

Avi: Why was Schultes reticent about the internal dimensions of Ayahuasca?

Dennis: It's not clear that he was. I drank ayahuasca many times before I actually 'got it'. It may simply be that he never connected with good preparations of ayahuasca. That doesn't explain his reticence about his experiences with other psychedelics, such as mushrooms, peyote, etc. I really don't know. I think Schultes was a very private person, and actually quite button-down and conservative. I think he probably had the notion that it was unseemly for a Harvard professor to talk in public about such private, unusual experiences. It wasn't consistent with his persona and so he didn't talk about it.

Avi: What was your aim in turning to academic research on hallucinogens?

Dennis: For me, partly it was an exercise in self-redemption. I went to La Chorrera not really knowing any science, or really knowing very much about anything (I was 20 at the time) but thinking I knew a whole lot. The experience at La Chorrera taught me that I really didn't know anything, especially anything about science. A lot of what we'd encountered at La Chorrera seemed to challenge all scientific paradigms. But rather than rejecting science outright I determined that I really should learn how to 'do' science before rejecting it. And so that's what I did. I was also interested in the nuts-and-bolts aspect of what had happened to us. I committed the error that many people who work with psychedelics do, the notion that somehow 'the trip is in the drug'. Of course it isn't in the drug, it's in the interaction between the drug and the brain/mind, and it's mostly in the latter. But in some respects I thought if I studied the drug, how it works in the brain, and so on, that I might somehow arrive at an understanding of how it could elicit such experiences. Of course studying the drug alone will not do that; but I think that many neuroscientists still approach it from that perspective, which is why the picture of what these things 'do' will remain incomplete.

Another motive for me: the first time I went to S. America we went to La Chorrera and had these amazing things happen to us, but some might have said, well, we just went crazy. And especially me, I went crazy! So my pursuit of ethnobotany and more reality based studies were a way to prove to myself that I could do good work, good science, even go back to S. America and study psychedelics, without necessarily having to go crazy! In some ways the research on psychedelics and ethnobotany was a good excuse to tinker around the edges, without actually plunging again into the Screaming Abyss! Which when you think about it, is pretty scary, partly because every time there's no guarantee that you will come back. And since then I've proven that, at least to my own satisfaction. I've been to S. America many times since, taken psychedelics many times since, both in the field and out of it, and haven't gone crazy once (so far!). So although I would be the last one to claim that I'm a shaman (I'm not, and never thought I was), I guess I did learn a few things about navigating in non-ordinary realms on psychedelics. I'm actually probably one of the more down to earth, level headed people I know.

Avi: How did your scientific knowledge enhance your Ayahuasca experiences?

Dennis: I would say it was the other way around. My interest in exploring the 'nuts-and-bolts' of psychedelics, in understanding 'how they worked' as much as possible on the molecular, cellular level, was in part in response to these experiences. Part of the fascination of psychedelics, for me, is that they are clearly molecular probes, molecular tools that can be used to explore and perhaps understand what you might call the 'brain-mind' interface. They are small molecules; their chemical structures are usually quite simple. DMT, for example, is just two trivial enzymatic steps away from tryptophan, an amino acid that is universally found in all living things. I've always found it fascinating and remarkable that such a simple molecule, so close to a universal metabolite (and moreover, DMT and related compounds are present in hundreds if not thousands of plants, animals, and fungi) could have such a profound, disruptive effect on our perceptions.

A person of more mystical inclinations (and maybe I am one!) might interpret this as a sign, a 'doctrine of signatures' if you will, a message from Nature that just under the surface there's more going on than we might think; so it's an invitation to look a little deeper. In European herbalism and in virtually every other tradition involving plant medicines, the Doctrine of Signatures is found in some form; it's the notion that a plant will 'reveal' it's medicinal or healing properties to the discerning healer by its morphology. If it has heart-shaped leaves, for example, it's good for the heart; or if parts of it are kidney-shaped, it's good for the kidneys, and so on. This is not a scientific notion, but there's enough empirical evidence to show that often, plants thought to be useful for certain ailments do have 'signatures' that might suggest specific applications, and they do turn out to be useful. I think the widespread occurrence of DMT and other tryptamines in nature is a kind of doctrine of signatures; a subtle message that, 'just behind the curtain', so to speak, nature is a much stranger and more marvelous place than we ever might suspect; and most people never will suspect it, unless they happen to ingest one of these plants or fungi, deliberately or accidentally. Then, they will get a quick, hands-on lesson in what J.B.S. Haldane famously said: "The universe is not only stranger than you suppose, it's stranger than you can suppose!" And maybe that is 'why' psychedelic substances are there, in nature; they are nature's way of reminding us of how little we know. And as a species, we tend toward arrogance; so it's good to be reminded once in a while, forcefully if necessary, that really our knowledge of reality is quite limited.

Avi: How can Ayahuasca and Psilocybin help in treating psychiatric disorders?

Dennis: As you know, psilocybin and potentially ayahuasca and other substances are being investigated for many possible therapeutic uses, such as how to come to terms with anxiety in the face of death, to the treatment of addictions, post-traumatic stress disorders, and so on. So although it's taken nearly 40 years since most human clinical studies with psychedelics were prohibited, much of the hysteria has faded away and serious clinicians are starting to look at this class of substances again for their potential benefits. Now we have much better experimental designs, better ways to measure and quantify the outcomes, and have learned a lot (much of it in the underground) in the last 40 years about how to control for variables of set and setting, and use these materials safely under controlled conditions. So now, finally, investigators are able to start looking again at promising uses for these substances, and this research was just basically shut down abruptly at the end of the 60s.

As to how they can help, or why they may help, that's a much more complicated question. They help, I think, because they can induce catharsis; catharsis is specifically defined in psychiatry as the discharge of pent-up emotions that results in the alleviation of symptoms or the permanent resolution of the condition. Other definitions I've seen state that catharsis is a profound mental or emotional experience that triggers a spiritual renewal. I think that, therapeutically, this is why psychedelics are useful; they should be called 'cathartogens' rather than 'hallucinogens'. I think they can (in the right set and setting, and in the hands of a good psychotherapist) trigger catharsis, and help people to unravel psychological 'knots' and facilitate the resolution of long-standing conditions. They don't always do that, but when they do, a good therapist (or shaman) can use that opportunity to resolve a lot of internal conflicts, and indeed, to actually cure symptoms that may be resistant to other kinds of treatment. Psychiatry does not have anything like this in its current armamentarium; we have a plethora of psychoactive drugs and indeed psychopharmaceuticals are highly over-prescribed under the current biomedical paradigm. But most of these things only mask symptoms. They numb patients into tolerating their situations by dulling their perceptions. Psychiatric medicine doesn't have, currently, anything like a cathartogen. That's why in my opinion the integration of these psychedelic agents into psychiatric practice is so important. Potentially, it will revolutionize the field, just like they thought it would back in the 50s when everyone was excited about LSD. But then all the research was shut down, not for good medical reasons but for social policy reasons, and these very promising agents could no longer be investigated. Now we're coming full circle; but it's taken 50 or 60 years, for medical use of psychedelics to even get fair consideration. We've lost a lot of time. And medicine has been impoverished by it. And most importantly, many people who could have been helped have suffered needlessly.

Avi: Finally, What is the Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss?

Dennis: The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss is tentatively, the title of the memoir I want to write about my life with Terence McKenna and the ideas and adventures that we shared. It's also the name we gave ourselves and our intrepid band of fellow travelers and seekers, when we were on our way to La Chorrera to discover the mystery of DMT. It was kind of a tongue-in-cheek moniker; Terence & I are Irish, after all. So we had a certain irreverance, and sense of humor, even in the face of confronting incredible mysteries. We knew we were on a quest; we knew we were seeking something unknown, transcendent, and possibly quite terrifying. So, we were setting out to explore the Screaming Abyss, and we became, humorously, the Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. I think the genesis of it came from H.P. Lovecraft, the early 20th century horror writer that Terence & I both read extensively as teenagers. Lovecraft wrote about 'the unspeakable, gibbering horror from beyond the stars', and that kind of thing. His horror novels were much more effective, much more scary, than say Poe because he never actually described what the 'horror' was; he left it to the imagination. He was a master in getting his readers to scare the bejeezus out of themselves! Hence, 'the screaming abyss'! It started out as a joke, but when we actually got out there, it proved to be closer to the mark than we ever imagined.

Those who want to know more should visit my The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss Kickstarter project. We have actually reached and exceeded the initial funding goal. I'd like to offer my profound thanks and gratitude to those who have backed this project. As a result of their support, I will be able to have enough money to self-publish this book, when it's finished next spring. And, also important, I'll have enough time to take a kind of sabbatical over the next few months to write the book, and pay my bills while that is happening.

Audio: Dennis McKenna's First Person Experience of Photosynthesis

Recorded by Adam Bowen at a an event hosted by James Walton of Storm Brewing